FRITZ NILAND THE REAL “SAVING PRIVATE RYAN”

The 1998 Steven Spielberg movie Saving Private Ryan was loosely based on the real life story of Fritz Niland, a paratrooper who jumped into Normandy and lost his brothers in combat.



Frederick “Fritz” Niland was born on April 23, 1920 in Tonawanda, NY, the youngest son of Mike and Augusta Niland. When WWII broke out, Fritz and his three older brothers Edward, Preston and Robert joined the Army and were sent to combat outfits.

fritz niland

The Niland Brothers (L to R) Edward, Preston, Robert and Frederick “Fritz”

Edward flew in the China-Burma-India Theater as a radio operator on a B-25 Mitchell with the 12th Bomb Group, Preston joined the 4th Infantry Division and Robert served with the 82nd Airborne Division’s 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment. Fritz also volunteered for the paratroopers and was assigned to H Company, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division.

fritz niland

B-25 Mitchell Medium Bomber. The type of plane flown by Edward Niland

On May 20, 1944 Edward’s bomber was shot down and he was presumed dead. His mother received the news on June 8.

On June 6, 1944 the three other Niland boys took part in the Invasion of Normandy. Fritz Niland parachuted in with his unit but was misdropped (typical for many 101st Airborne Division paratroopers on D-Day) causing him to be initially reported as Missing in Action.  It took him about a week to return to his outfit.

Robert also parachuted in during the early morning hours of D-Day, but was killed later that day, after volunteering to stay behind and cover his unit’s withdrawal from the town of Neuville-au-Plain.



fritz niland

Paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division prepare for the drop into Normandy.

In mid-June, after hearing of his brother’s death, Fritz Niland contacted Father Francis L. Sampson, the chaplain of the 501st PIR, to visit Robert’s grave near Saint Mere Eglise. Upon arriving at the cemetery, the two not only found the grave of Robert but also Preston, who had been killed on June 7, near Utah Beach.

The encounter was recorded poignantly but with multiple factual errors by Father Sampson in his 1958 book Look Out Below! (CUA Press, Washington, DC):

When the regiment was bivouacked near Utah Beach waiting for the boats to take us back to England, a young soldier by the name of Fritz Nyland came to see me. He was very troubled in mind. The company commander of his brother who was with the 508th Regiment, told Fritz that his brother had been killed and was buried in the Sainte Mere Eglise cemetery. We jumped in my jeep and drove the twenty miles back to that town. In checking the cemetery roster I couldn’t find the boy’s name.

(CLICK TO ENLARGE) The tragedy of the Niland family reported in the Courier Express (via Andrew L. Bouwhuis Library archives)

(CLICK TO ENLARGE) The tragedy of the Niland family reported in the Courier Express (via Andrew L. Bouwhuis Library archives)

“There’s no William Nyland listed here, Fritz,” I said encouragingly, “though there is a Roland Nyland listed.”

“Father…That’s my brother too. He was a Lieutenant in the Ninetieth Division.”

The unhappy boy tried to choke back the tears. After saying a few prayers at the grave, we went to another cemetery just a few blocks away, where we found the grave we were looking for originally. A third brother had just been killed in the Pacific.

As we were driving back to the bivouac area, Fritz kept saying over and over again, more to himself than to me, “What will poor Butch do now? What will poor Butch do now?”

“Who is Butch, son?” I asked.

“Butch? Oh she’s my mother.” I looked at him and wondered if he was suffering from combat exhaustion and the terrible shock of this afternoon’s discover. He must have read my thoughts, for he explained. “We four boys always called mom ‘Butch’ these last few years. That’s because, when we wanted to listen to swing orchestras and jive bands on the radio, mom would always turn on ‘Gangbusters’ or some other program about gangsters….She liked those. Now I’m the only son left.” Mrs. Nyland had received three tragic wires within a week. However, we managed to get Fritz sent back to the states, so Butch still has one son to comfort her.

Author and historian Mark Bando covered Fritz Niland’s story in his masterful book 101st Airborne: The Screaming Eagles at Normandy noting the errors in Father Sampson’s powerful account. The most obvious mistakes being the misspelling of the Niland family name, as well as the errors in the names of Fritz’s brothers and the Army units they served with. Mark Bando also notes that the Niland brothers called their mom “Stumpy” not “Butch” although she did enjoy gangster programs on the radio.



Fritz Niland

Fritz Niland

Beginning on June 20, 1944, Augusta Niland received news about her sons in a series of telegrams. At first, all three boys were reported missing in action, but soon word came that Fritz was alive but both Preston and Robert had been killed.

Fritz continued to fight in Normandy until the 101st Airborne Division returned to England in mid-July 1944.

Near the end of summer, Father Sampson paid Fritz Niland a visit telling him that orders had come down transferring him back to the United States. Although Fritz protested to stay with his unit and return to combat, he was soon on his way back to America where he served as a Military Policeman at the Grand Central Railroad in New York until 1945.

Edward Niland also returned home from WWII but in poor physical condition. He had managed to parachute out from his plane and wandered the jungles of Burma before being captured by the Japanese. He survived a hellish year in a Japanese Prisoner-of-War camp were upon liberation he weighed only 80 lbs. (his original weight was 170 lbs.). He continued to live in Tonawanda until his death in 1984.

After WWII Fritz Niland earned his dental degree from Georgetown University, he opened up his own dental practice in Niagara Falls, NY. He died in San Francisco, CA in 1983.



For More on Fritz Niland See:

Look Out Below! A Story of the Airborne by a Paratrooper Padre

fritz niland

101st Airborne: The Screaming Eagles at Normandy


Saving Private Ryan




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